****THIS IS A SPOILER FREE REVIEW!!! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS ZERO SPOILERS!!!****
My Rating: 2.5 out of 5 stars
My Recommendation: SKIP IT IN THEATRE - SEE IT ON NETFLIX OR CABLE.
Novitiate, written and directed by Margaret Betts, is the story of a young woman, Cathleen Harris, who enters a convent during the tumultuous Vatican II transitional period of the mid-1960's at the age of 17 in the hopes of becoming a Catholic nun. The film stars Margaret Qualley as Cathleen, with Melissa Leo and Julianne Nicholson in supporting roles.
Being the good Irish Catholic boy that I am, I am always intrigued by films that deal with religion in general and Catholicism and/or the Catholic Church in particular. I find that religion is an often overlooked, undervalued or completely misunderstood thematic device that is rarely explored seriously or effectively by filmmakers (or other artists for that matter). There are exceptions of course, for instance Martin Scorsese's Silence(2016) was flawed but spiritually serious. Another great example is Xavier Beauvois' 2010 film Of Gods and Men which is a moving and staggeringly insightful look at Trappist Monks caught in the turmoil of the Algerian civil war. Another one of my all-time favorites is the 1986 Roland Jaffe film The Mission. These three films are just a few of the examples that prove that there is nothing quite so satisfying, both dramatically and spiritually, as when an artist is able to delve into religion without falling into the traps of either uber-piety or Manichean simplicity.
I knew next to nothing about Novitiate when I went to see it, except for the fact that it was about Catholic nuns. As the film started I wasn't sure what to expect but found myself pleasantly surprised that the film dealt with Catholicism in a theologically serious way right from the start. Near the beginning of the film the lead character, Cathleen Harris, who is a young woman entering a convent, talks about the fact that nowadays (the mid-1960's) people just want "easy love". She then enters the convent in order to avoid the trappings of "easy love" in the outer world for the difficult, disciplined and sacrificial love of a marriage to Christ. This theological perspective of the film intrigued me no end because that sort of rigorous approach to religion (and life) is an endangered species in our culture even among the most "devout" practitioners of the faith. We currently live in a culture of "easy love" in relation to everything we touch, be it politics, relationships, business or religion.
Cathleen Harris' declaration that she wanted "love AND sacrifice" made me root for the Novitiate from that point forward because I believed the film to be at the very least, grounded with a spiritual and religious integrity. As theologically tantalizing as Novitiate is, and the film's much too abbreviated exploration of the consequences of Vatican II in particular is fascinating, sadly the movie ended up being a frustrating and ultimately unsatisfying experience both cinematically and spiritually.
Besides what I would describe as the noble failure at the theological heart of the film, there is a very bright spot on display in the movie and that is the film's lead actress Margaret Qualley. Qualley gives an intricate, delicate and dynamic performance that is grounded in a fervent spiritual realism. Qualley's Cathleen has a focused devotion that is palpable and her desperation to connect with God and overcome her earthly human failings is visceral. I have never seen Margaret Qualley before but she is a striking screen presence. Her charisma, magnetism and beauty are undeniable, but I was most impressed by her skill, commitment and mastery of craft. Qualley is a very impressive actress and the sky undoubtedly is the limit for her acting future.
Novitiate also boasts two supporting performances from Melissa Leo and Julianne Nicholson, who are two actresses for whom I have great admiration. Nicholson in particular is an under appreciated actress who I feel deserves much greater recognition for the quality work she routinely delivers. Sadly though, in Novitiate both women give very flat, one-dimensional and shallow performances.
Nicholson plays Cathleen's mother, Nora, and her performance rings hollow and trite, which was deeply disappointing. It seems that Nicholson gets lost in her character's pronounced southern accent and can't get beyond that bell and whistle to find grounding in the genuine humanity of her character.
Melissa Leo plays Reverend Mother Marie St. Clair, the head of the convent. I found Leo's performance to be exceedingly derivative and painfully forced and false. Leo is an actress with a powerful screen presence but she makes the error of portraying Mother Marie as a vindictive and vengeful woman rather than a rabidly devout and ferocious protector of the faith. It is a pretty common occurrence for actors, particularly those who have no religious faith, to fail to emotionally or intellectually understand characters who deeply believe in God. When this failure to understand belief occurs, the faith of the character gets reduced to a means to an earthly end where complexity and nuance are not only unable to flourish, but survive. I do not know this for sure, but I think this might be the reason behind Ms. Leo's superficial performance as Mother Marie.
Both Leo and Nicholson felt like they were play acting in their roles as opposed to Qualley who seemed to be entirely immersed in hers. Part of the issue with the supporting roles is that they are terribly underwritten. I also thought that both Nicholson and Leo never connected with the rhythm and pace of the film or with the scope and scale of the other performances, and that failing falls directly upon the filmmaker, Margaret Betts.
As theologically and spiritually promising as the first two thirds of Novitiate were, the final third devolves into the artistically and cinematically banal by embracing a made-for-tv-movie, paint by numbers, Hollywood cliched view of the struggle of faith. It felt as if Betts had hit a dead end in her artistic exploration of Catholicism so she just took a cheap and easy way out of the dilemma at the heart of faith.
In the final analysis, Novitiate is unable to rise up to its grand narrative ambitions and in the end its spiritual eyes are bigger than its artistic stomach. The main reason for Novitiate's artistic failure is because writer/director Margaret Betts simply lacks the skill and confidence to fully till the rich soil upon which she trod. While Novitiate's failure is a noble one, it is also a deeply disappointing one as cinema is in desperate need of religious films that effectively and coherently convey the deep and faithful struggle to square both love and sacrifice in a world that truly understands and appreciates neither.
Despite the film's flaws I do recommend people watch this film, just not in the theatre, not only to enjoy Margaret Qualley's sublime performance but also for some of the better scenes of spiritual and religious struggle that can trigger a deeper meditation and contemplation on one's own faith. At the end of the day, I think if you wait and see Novitiate on Netflix or cable, it will be worthwhile, but the film is simply too cinematically flawed to make it worth the time and money it takes to go see it in a theatre.